Landlords and Tenants in Mid-Victorian Ireland

By W. E. Vaughan | Go to book overview

3
The Movement and Level of Rents

i. A Contemporary Puzzle

Rents were the most important aspect of landlord-tenant relations. Few tenants were evicted, or even threatened with eviction, but all paid rent. Rents could be increased frequently, even annually, if tenants did not have leases. Rent, even a low rent, was a large proportion of a tenant's income, and a fall in prices, or a farming disaster, such as the death of a cow, would make punctual payment difficult. There is much information on rents in the evidence collected by official inquiries such as the Devon and Bessborough commissions and in the mass of contemporary pamphlets and books. While much of this is useful, as historical evidence it is inevitably coloured by the circumstances that produced it. The appointment of a royal commission, for example, presided over by a great nobleman such as the duke of Richmond and Gordon, sustained the assumption that there was a weighty problem to investigate, an assumption that was not challenged by many of the witnesses who gave evidence.

The writers of pamphlets and books on the land question were less burdened by the panoply of state, and often, like George Campbell, brought a refreshingly new point of view to Irish problems.1 Pamphlets and books, however, tended to be written at times when controversy was most acute: Campbell The Irish Land was published in 1869, William O'Connor Morris's Letters on the Land Question of Ireland was published in 1870, and Finlay Dun Landlords and Tenants in Ireland in 1881. While none of these was as tendentious as William Steuart Trench Realities of Irish Life ( 1868), Fr. Lavelle The Irish Landlord since the Revolution ( 1870), or William Bence Jones The Life's Work in Ireland of a Landlord who Tried to Do his Duty ( 1880), they all suffered from the weakness of any inquiry that proceeded by asking direct questions: not only was there a risk of receiving misleading answers, but the questions themselves imposed a rigid simplicity on complicated matters.

A contradictory picture of rents comes from these sources. There were estates where rent increases occurred infrequently, usually preceded by a valuation of the whole estate. On the Salters' estate in County Londonderry, for example, rents were unchanged from 1853 to 1878.2 After an increase,

____________________
1
For Campbell's influence on Gladstone see E. D. Steele, "'Ireland and the Empire in the 1860s. Imperial Precedents for Gladstone's First Land Act'", Hist. Jn. 11:1 ( 1968), 64-83.
2
Bessborough Comm., Minutes of Evidence, pt. i, p. 324.

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